Born on a Boat: Donald Healey and the Story of the Nash-Healey

A NASH-HEALEY HARDTOP AND A LAST RUN AT LE MANS

A year after the debut of the Italian-built convertible, the final iteration of the production Nash-Healey was unveiled at the 1953 Chicago Auto Show: a fixed-head coupe called Nash-Healey Le Mans. The name was probably intended to suggest a connection with the X6 racer, although the Le Mans bore little resemblance to that car. Again designed by Pinin Farina, the coupe was a handsome pillarless hardtop, attractive enough to take the first-place trophy in the Foreign Car Custom Body Division of the 1953 Italian International Concours d’Elegance. However, the hardtop’s stylish looks were matched with an eyebrow-raising price tag: $6,399 POE, over $500 more than a C-type Jaguar.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans front 3q
The Nash-Healey Le Mans hardtop was longer, wider, and higher than the sports convertible: 180.5 inches (4,585 mm) long on a 108-inch (2,743mm) wheelbase, 65.9 inches (1,673 mm) wide, and 55 inches (1,397 mm) high. All coupes had the larger 4,138 cc (253 cu. in.) engine with 140 hp (104 kW) and 230 lb-ft (312 N-m) of torque.

Despite its name, the Farina-styled Nash-Healey Le Mans was not used in competition. However, Healey body engineer Gerry Coker did design a new, more streamlined roadster body for two new lightweight race cars, designated X14 and X15. The troublesome experimental hemispherical combustion chamber head was abandoned (it had been shipped to Kenosha for Nash engineers to analyze), but the new cars were fitted with special heavy-duty Laycock de Normanville overdrives, which had quicker, more positive engagement than the earlier Borg-Warner unit.

In April, racing driver John Fitch entered one of the new lightweights in the 1953 Mille Miglia, but he was sidelined after suffering both a minor engine fire and a broken axle at the beginning of the race. Both cars went to Le Mans in June, one driven by Leslie Johnson and Bert Hadley, the other by Pierre Veyron and Yves Giraud-Cabantous, but the French drivers were no luckier than they had been in 1952, dropping out after only nine laps due to oil pump failure. Johnson and Hadley pressed on, finally managing 11th place.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans rear 3q
With its larger dimensions, the Nash-Healey Le Mans was about 220 lb (100 kg) heavier than the sports convertible, tipping the scales at 2,970 lb (1,350 kg). Since it had the same engine as the open car, we assume its acceleration suffered commensurately, although we’ve found no performance figures for the coupe.

Even after the addition of the Le Mans coupe, 1953 production totaled only 162 units, of which about 100 were convertibles. However, the Nash-Healey did attract various celebrity owners, including New York Yankees baseball player Phil Rizzuto, pro golfer Sam Snead, and actor-director Dick Powell, whose convertible appeared in four 1953–1955 episodes of The Adventures of Superman TV series, driven by actor George Reeves in his role as Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent. Nash-Healeys also appeared in at least four other movies of the period, including Sabrina and The Desperate Hours.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans dash
All Nash-Healeys had a well-appointed interior with leather upholstery and a standard tachometer. The only major option was Nash’s excellent Weather Eye heater; some sources suggest the Borg-Warner overdrive was optional, although most indicate that overdrive was standard equipment. Like most Riley- and Alvis-engined Healeys, the Nash-Healey also had a telescoping steering column, an unusual feature in this era.

END OF THE LINE

The 1954 model year would be the Nash-Healey’s last. Designers in Kenosha had been toying for several years with ideas for future models, but Nash ultimately abandoned the idea of a second generation, mainly for cost reasons. The Nash-Healey was very expensive to build, something that was difficult to avoid at such a small production volume.

In late 1953, George Mason investigated the possibility of building the body in fiberglass, hoping it would be cheaper, but found that it would cost even more than steel. In any case, by early 1954, Nash was preoccupied with its pending merger with Hudson, which resulted in the formation of the American Motors Corporation (AMC) in May.

The original Healey chassis was also on its way out. Its trailing-arm front suspension was expensive to produce and arguably obsolete — the Austin-Healey ‘Hundred’ had gone to double wishbones — and many of the Riley components were disappearing in the wake of the 1952 merger between the Nuffield Organization (Riley’s parent company) and Austin Motors. Production of the Alvis-engined Healey Sports Convertible ended in late 1953, the Tickford and Abbott following early the following year. The Nash-Healey expired in August, about two months before the death of George Mason.

1954 Nash Ambassador Custom side
As of this writing, we don’t have photographs of the 1954 Nash-Healey, but this shot of a 1954 Nash Ambassador Custom will give you a sense of what its three-piece backlight and reverse-slant sail panels were presumably intended to resemble. It’s worth noting that both of those features were part of Pinin Farina’s original proposal for the 1952 Golden Anniversary Nash — among the few elements from Farina’s design that made it to production.

Only 90 Nash-Healeys were built for 1954, all of them Le Mans hardtops. They were distinguished from the 1953 Nash-Healey by new reverse-slant C-pillars and a wider, three-piece backlight, which made the coupes look a bit more like Nash’s contemporary sedans. Production of the convertible had already ended, although it remained on sale. Nash repeatedly slashed prices in an effort to clear unsold stock, but some leftover cars may have lingered into the 1955 model year.

Including the Panelcraft roadsters, the final tally was 506 production Nash-Healeys, not including the lightweight competition cars and various prototypes, some of which survive in the hands of private collectors. A few of the production cars were fitted with other engines, including AMC’s later 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc) V8.

7 Comments

  1. Yet another great read. I always look forward to another article. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the nicely presented story on a unique car! I had never heard of the Cadillac connection before.

  3. Interesting article about a car I didn’t know much about. How things might have been different had Cadillac been able to supply drivetrains! More like the Allard J2R perhaps?

    1. Very likely. The prototype was much more hotrod-like than the Nash-Healey ended up: Cadillac engine, Ford gearbox and torque tube, Columbia quick-change axle. Had it been built in California, it would probably have had flames painted on the bonnet…

      1. I believe the Cad Healey prototype is in the hands of Tivvy Shenton who has a race shop on the premises of Virginia International Raceway. At least you can contact there to learn about it. I saw it on the track once about seven years ago, but have not been back since.

  4. I have a little info on supercharged Healey Silverstones. The green Silverstone in your photo is the only factory supercharged Silverstone. From the factory the blower ran 1 to 1 crankspeed and produced about 4psi boost and 140hp. At 12psi, 1 to 1.5 crankspeed, about 215hp. It’s been detuned twice since, running 1.25 to 1 crankspeed producing 8 to 10psi and maybe 180hp, currently 1.2 to 1 crankspeed, 6psi boost and maybe 160hp. More than most people want to know, but I do get asked this occasionally.
    John

  5. Nice article. My first car was a 1956 100-6 I got during 1959. Uncle Sam and the draft required its sale in 1960, much to my disappointment. In 1961 I came across a 1952 Bertone bodied Nash Healey in Germany priced within my range, which I drove for several years. I enjoyed both cars and often think about the adventures of my youth, and the utter amazement at German gas stations at any private automobile holding 160 liters of gasoline. It’s a shame that the Healey is only a footnote to automotive history. Glad I had a chance to be a part of it.

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